Tribeca docs profile an autistic savant, an Egyptian satirist and insect evangelists


One of the strengths of the annual Tribeca Film Festival is its ample selection of documentary features, and once again this downtown event is introducing audiences to a memorable gallery of real-life subjects.

Winner of the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated is a fascinating, intimate portrait of Owen Suskind, an engaging young man who will shatter your preconceptions about the aloofness of the autistic. At age three, Owen suddenly presented symptoms of the disorder, retreating into a private world and speaking gibberish. His father Ron, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and mother Cornelia despaired of ever bonding with their once-vibrant son—until they made the startling discovery that little Owen had become fixated on Disney cartoons, to the point of reciting their dialogue word-for-word. The “A-ha!” moment came when his older brother looked sad during his ninth-birthday party and Owen, out of the blue, observed, “Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Peter Pan.” It was the first complete sentence he had ever uttered.

The Disney canon, from early classics like Bambi and Dumbo to more modern gems like The Lion King and Aladdin, became Owen’s means of connecting with and understanding the world. A medical expert notes that, amidst the sensory bombardment that is autism, these animated tales provide a mental oasis because they are a constant reference point that never changes. Fueled by his enthusiasm for the cartoons, Owen becomes a surprisingly social creature, forming and leading a Disney club for other mentally challenged friends (“So I can be more popular!” he proclaims) and even acquiring a girlfriend—though their sudden breakup hits him hard. (One of the more amusing moments sees Owen’s supportive brother lamenting that Disney cartoons offer no lessons in the mechanics of sex.) With his generally sunny nature, optimism, and sometimes startling self-awareness, Owen Suskind is one of the more irresistible people audiences will meet onscreen at Tribeca.

Another very likeable (and brave) doc subject at Tribeca will probably already be familiar to fans of “The Daily Show.” In fact, Bassem Youssef is known as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart,” a witty heart surgeon who tired of his country’s suppression of any images of unrest and alienation in its mass media. A devotee of “The Daily Show,” Youssef posted comedy sketches on YouTube which generated millions of views, leading to the creation of the first satirical comedy TV program in Egypt. Launched in August 2011 after the resignation of longtime hardline president Hosni Mubarek, the show was a runaway hit, but Youssef’s irreverence outraged followers of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. (At one point, Youssef was arrested but quickly set free.) In July 2013, the unpopular Morsi was ousted in a coup d’état, replaced by army head General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The general brought a certain stability and freedom from religious repression to the country, but was not a proponent of free speech, and Youssef’s continued pursuit of satirical mischief made his program more controversial than ever.

Filmmaker Sara Taksler followed Youssef closely throughout his sensational media career for her film Tickling Giants, and the comedian proves an engaging and courageous subject, maintaining his composure and cheeky humor through legal skirmishes, network cancellations, and angry protests outside his studio. We also get to know his equally gutsy staff, which includes quite a few women. As Youssef and his team respond to the turbulence of the post-Mubarek era, the comic admits, “There is no manual to do this.” But he never loses his conviction that “revolution is not an event—it’s a process.”

You might not think there would be a political dimension to a movie called Bugs, but there is. Danish director Andreas Johnson’s film notes that the world’s population will hit nine billion by the year 2050, which will require a 70% increase in food production. A potential solution? Embracing the concept of edible insects, which is already a reality in many parts of the world. At the Nordic Food Lab, researcher Josh Evans and chef Ben Reade are evangelists for a buggy diet, traveling the world in search of digestible insects and finding ways to prepare them that resemble sophisticated haute cuisine. Apparently, nothing is too gross for these young pioneers, and it’s startling to watch them salivate over plump termite queens and escamoles (ant larvae, which are quite the delicacy in Mexico). When Reade mentions that the only food poisoning he suffered during his travels was from a burger in Sydney, Australia, you may even be convinced that these guys are onto something. Fried crickets, anyone?

Another distinct subculture is celebrated in Obit, an entertaining inside look at the obituary writers of The New York Times. Their chosen profession may still raise eyebrows in some circles, but Vanessa Gould’s doc makes a strong case for the well-wrought obituary as something of an art form. As one staff member observes, their work “has next to nothing to do with death, and everything to do with the life.” Briskly edited by Kristin Bye, the film integrates archival footage of a number of the obit subjects, ranging from world adventurer John Fairfax (the first person to row solo across an ocean) to William P. Wilson, the television consultant who helped John F. Kennedy win his debate with Richard Nixon and the subsequent election. We watch the Times scribes as they gently fact-check with the bereaved and hone their prose as the late-afternoon deadline looms. (Perhaps the department’s greatest challenge was preparing a huge section on Michael Jackson in a scant four hours.) Writer Margalit Fox stands out as perhaps the most adept stylist and eloquent on-camera interviewee. Interestingly, she makes the argument that we are just starting to see a more diverse range of subjects on the Times obituary pages thanks to the cultural shifts of the 1960s and the loss of important people from that era. Either that, or the Times simply wasn’t looking hard enough for pre-’60s women and minority members whose lives had an impact beyond the Times demographic.